Taking on the global assault on teaching

August 14, 2008

New York CIty teacher Megan Behrent reviews a new book that examines the attack on schools around the world--and how to fight back.

THE ERA of No Child Left Behind has ushered in a period of massive assault on public education in the U.S. under the guise of standards and accountability--code words in education for pressuring teachers to teach to the test and punishing them, their students and their schools when they predictably fail to meet arbitrary goals.

These goals reduce students to numbers on standardized tests, while lining the pockets of the testing industry. Anyone involved in education in the U.S. is undoubtedly well acquainted with the way in which the standards movement has used the language of accountability to push through "reforms" such as privatization, charter schools, vouchers, and merit pay to decimate public education.

But perhaps less well known is the fact that this is not simply a U.S. phenomenon but part of a global assault on education that at its heart is an attempt to impose the logic of neoliberalism on the sphere of public education and gut public services such as education while attacking unions that resist this assault.

The collection of essays edited by Mary Compton and Lois Weiner in The Global Assault on Teaching, Teachers and their Unions: Stories for Resistance is a powerful indictment of this global assault as well as an inspiring testament to the international efforts to resist this attack and fight for quality public education for all.

As Weiner and Compton make clear in their introduction to the book:

Though the titles and acronyms of the policies differ from one country to another, the basics of the assault are the same: undercut the publicly supported, publicly controlled system of education, teachers' professionalism, and teachers unions as organizations...

As the contributions to this volume demonstrate, teacher trade unionists are grappling with the increasing privatization of education services, the introduction of business "quality control" measures into education, and the requirements that education produce the kind of minimally trained and flexible workforce that corporations require to maximize their profits.

Indeed, any teacher who has struggled against these demeaning attacks in their own classroom will be unable to resist engaging in emphatic nodding, knowing smiles, and cries of frustration and solidarity as they read the stories collected in this volume from teachers in China, South Africa, England, Namibia, Australia and beyond who are on the daily frontlines of the struggle to defend public education.

Members of Britain's National Union of Teachers hold a day of action for fair pay
Members of Britain's National Union of Teachers hold a day of action for fair pay

But the strength of Weiner and Compton's book lies not only in expressing the international frustration and anger of teachers and educational activists who are at the forefront of this global assault on education--but also in its ability to provide a theoretical and political understanding of the nature of the assault and provide a way forward to resist these attacks.

As this book makes clear, the global assault on education is intimately linked to the global imposition of neoliberal policies with its emphasis on the supreme power of the market, deregulation, privatization and the corresponding attack on all public services and trade unions. Thus, the same people who brought you the housing crisis, the credit crisis, the global food crisis and structural adjustment programs are not surprisingly behind the current global assault on education.

FINANCIAL INSTITUTIONS like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have played a crucial role in decimating public education in less economically developed countries, as structural adjustment policies are imposed as conditions for loans with devastating impacts on education, as the contribution from John Nyambe from Namibia in this volume makes clear.

If the attacks are most overt in the poorest countries that are most vulnerable to the whims of international financial institutions; they are nonetheless truly international in scope. Essays from activists in Germany, England, the U.S. and Denmark provide further evidence of the ways in which the neoliberal agenda has made privatization, standardized curriculums and testing, and merit pay the bludgeons with which public education and teachers unions have been attacked globally.

Unlike many books on the state of education, which often leave the reader enveloped in a cloud of tears and despair--The Global Assault on Teaching, Teachers and their Unions is not simply a critique but also a call to action. The book makes a concrete attempt to put forward an argument about the importance of an international union movement. Central to this argument is the importance of unions in leading the struggle for public education.

As Weiner argues in one essay, "Unions are the single most powerful threat to neoliberalism's exercise of unchecked power, which explains the constant barrage of anti-union propaganda in the media, often emanating from reports issued by seemingly objective 'watchdog' organizations or commissions."

Nonetheless, unions face real challenges in mounting this kind of fightback. As Weiner writes:

Unions, like classrooms, are affected by the social, economic and political life. Teachers unions are buoyed by successful widespread activism about politically progressive causes and weakened when progressive movements are on the decline. When I started teaching, it was possible for a union to function bureaucratically, without mobilizing members, and still make economic gains. Now, neoliberalism's power, even apart from its assault on public services and education, threatens the very existence of unions. Moreover, whereas labor unions could previously operate effectively within national or local borders, today unions must mount a global response...the most essential principle or the creation of a global movement capable of stemming and ultimately turning back the neoliberal assault: The consistent defense of democracy and social justice within the teacher union movement itself and throughout the world.

One of the many strengths of this volume is its insistence on the need for unions to go beyond the traditional fight for bread and butter issues and--while not abandoning these issues--play a leading role in fighting for larger issues of social justice and equality.

Some of the most powerful essays in the volume deal with precisely these issues, telling stories of teachers fighting against homophobia in the Caribbean, against discrimination toward people of aboriginal ancestry in British Columbia and against the horrifying dehumanizing treatment of Palestinians in Israeli schools and textbooks.

Other essays point toward inspiring struggles that can provide important lessons for educators and activists around the world--from the struggle of teachers in Brazil to radically transform education through programs such as the Escola Plural program to teachers struggles in Mexico led by the Section 22 of the SNTE in Oaxaca and the international solidarity this struggle received.

In all these struggles, the writers emphasize the need for teachers' unions to take on broader issues of social justice as a means of strengthening their unions and gaining wider support. In Australia, for example, teachers unions have played a crucial role not only in resisting neoliberal economic policies but also in mobilizing opposition to the invasion and occupation of Iraq and fighting for the independence of East Timor.

As Rob Durbridge argues in his description of the Australian experience, "Membership growth parallels activism; when the membership is involved in industrial or political campaigns, recruitment is strongest."

PERHAPS NOWHERE is the necessity for unions to take on broader political struggles clearer than in the contribution from unionists and activists in South Africa who describe the way in which teachers unions played a revolutionary role not only in fighting for trade union rights but in overthrowing the racist apartheid regime.

If this book of essays makes clear the global nature of the assault, it also provides the tools to resist it and is a stunning testament to the international struggles from which we can draw to build an international movement of teachers against the neoliberal agenda. The development of the Tri-National Coalition in Defense of Public Education played a crucial role in organizing international solidarity for teachers in Oaxaca and is one example of international attempts to bring educators together across national borders to fight back against the global assault on education.

Likewise, the election of Thulas Nxesi (the general secretary of the South African Democratic Teachers Union) as president of the Education International, which had up until then been dominated by the American Federation of Teachers and National Education Association, could potentially revitalize this international organization.

As Nxesi says in an interview in this book, explaining his ideas for the Global Campaign for Education, "We must not think we will be able to do this alone. We have to build a massive coalition with the whole civil society, including the labor movement, in order to challenge the privatization of key public services--just like we did in South Africa...the onslaught of privatization of public services formed by the neoliberal agenda needs a collective response."

Reading The Global Assault on Teaching, Teachers and their Unions not only gives you a clear sense of the urgency and dire necessity of such a movement but also of the possibilities for building a truly international movement of educators and unionists to fight the neoliberal agenda. For any educator, parent or student who has every felt isolated or demoralized by the daily struggle against injustice, inequality and indignity in our schools, this book is a must read.

It is a reminder that a.) you are not alone b.) what you do matters, and c.) our side has a great deal of power which we can harness to build a real international movement in defense of public education. While the difficulties cannot be underestimated, Compton and Weiner's book is a powerful tool for our side, which can serve to revitalize a debate in our unions about the way forward in the global fight for public education and social justice.

Further Reading

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